A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972)

a-reason-to-live-a-reason-to-die-posterIf a formula ain’t broke…don’t fix it! Nowhere is that more applicable than with movies. If a movie succeeds, tweek it, twist it, spin it and do your thing. Released in 1967, The Dirty Dozen is a gem, an American army major tasked with leading 12 convicts sentenced to death or hard labor on a suicide mission. A classic! In its wake, countless war and western flicks followed the formula, like 1972’s A Reason to Live, a Recent to Die.

It’s early in the Civil War in the Southwest territory as Union and Confederate forces battle back and forth. A disgraced Union colonel, Pembroke (James Coburn), is seeking some revenge but his plan is suicidal (at best). The former commander of the impregnable Fort Holman, Pembroke surrendered the fort to the Rebs without a shot fired. Now, he’s approaching his former commanders with a way to take back the mountaintop fort. His men? Eight men rescued from the gallows at the last second, including an amiable drifter, Eli (Bud Spencer). All the while, Fort Holman and its psychotic commander, Major Ward (Telly Savalas), awaits. Pembroke can’t wait to exact his revenge, if he can keep his death squad in check.

As is so often the case with spaghetti westerns, it can be difficult to track down the full versions of so many of these movies. The genre itself was hugely popular in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, especially in Europe and plenty of third-world countries around the world. The versions that made it to America at times? Heavily cut, heavily edited, and often times a shell of what the original, intended version really was. The version I’ve seen is the heavily-edited 92-minute version. The full version — about 111 minutes — is available at Amazon for $90 if anyone wants to split it with me and just share the DVD…

What remains is a fun, entertaining but somewhat disjointed western from director Tonino Valerii (also directed My Name is Nobody, Day of Anger, and The Price of Power). An introduction to Coburn and Spencer was cut entirely, now we actually are spoiled by the ending in the opening minutes unfortunately. Then, it’s a quick flashback to where the mission all started (sorta). What follows a little barebones. Little time for exposition, quick, aggressive cuts that leave scenes jumping from one to another without much in the way of a transition. It’s all built around getting the story to the attack on the fort with no interest in characters, story or background. So if you’re patient for some action…

All that said, it’s hard not to be excited for a western starring Coburn, Spencer and Savalas, right? The backstory — however rushed — between Coburn and Savalas does provide a good twist in the film’s last half, explaining why Pembroke surrendered the fort without a shot. Coburn is the leader tasked with an impossible mission, leading his death squad without the squad actually killing him! His manipulation continually holds his men at bay. Spencer gives the movie a lighter touch as Eli, a drifter who sides with Pembroke during the mission. Savalas’ part amounts to an extended cameo, a script that doesn’t give him much to do, especially considering his backstory and how crazy we’re told he is. Eh, story is overrated!

The star power is in our lead trio. As for Pembroke’s death squad, spaghetti western fans will enjoy seeing some familiar faces, but it’s not big stars by any means. The wild west convict commandos include Sgt. Brent (Reinhard Kolldehoff), the questioning NCO — who potentially killed Pembroke’s wife? I don’t know…cut scene! –, MacIvers (Guy Mairesse), the murdering deserter, Wendel (Ugo Fangareggi), the horse thief, Pickett (Benito Stefanelli), a murderer and rapist, Fernandez (Adolfo Lastretti), a black market seller who’s latest deal killed 30 Union troops and Turam Quibo as a half-breed Apache. Quibo is also in Adios, Sabata and miscredited here in the ‘Reason’ casting listing. Not a likable group by any means, but an interesting mix for sure.

If you’ve made it this far, it must be because of the action. Using the same awesome filming set as 1970’s El Condor, the Fort Holman location is awesome, providing an incredible backdrop for an impressive attack that runs about 25 minutes. Explosions, dynamite, Gatling guns, twists and turns, a crazy body count, and who can make it out from our death squad? A whole lotta fun in a beautifully choreographed final action sequence.

Flawed though it is, ‘Reason’ is pretty fun, and I’ve watched it 3 different times over the last 6 or 7 years. Familiar locations from El Condor, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Deserter and plenty others, and a cool — if somewhat out of place — score (listen HERE) helps make for a fun if flawed final product. In the vein of ‘Deserter’ and Kill Them All and Come Back Alone. A mess but an entertaining mess!

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972): ** 1/2 /****

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Sabata (1968)

sabata_dvd_coverIt’s beyond easy to point to Clint Eastwood as the actor most profoundly impacted by the popularity of the spaghetti western genre. His Dollars trilogy with Sergio Leone put him on the map on a worldwide basis. Who’s the second guy on that list? There are a handful of names that come to mind, but it’s not really close. It’s gotta be Lee Van Cleef, who co-starred with Eastwood in two Leone westerns. Van Cleef immediately shot to stardom, including an iconic character in one of the best spaghetti westerns in the entire genre, 1968’s Sabata.

 

In the Texas border town of Daugherty City, a gang of bandits rob a heavily-guarded bank and escape into the desert, heading for Mexico with the haul. That’s the plan at least. A mysterious gunfighter clad in all black, Sabata (Van Cleef), stops them in the desert, killing them all. He returns the money to the town and receives a sizable reward from the Army. That’s not all though. Three prominent businessmen in town were behind the robbery, looking to use the stolen cash to purchase more land, land the railroad is going to buy soon. Sabata quickly finds out their plan and blackmails the trio for increasing amounts of money. The only solution for the trio? Kill Sabata, but any would-be killers will have their hands full with this seemingly unstoppable gunfighter.

 

By 1968, the craze of spaghetti westerns were in full swing. ‘Sabata’ marks an interesting turn for the genre with director Gianfranco Parolini at the helm. The crazy villains, sweaty/sandy landscapes, the overdone violence, all three are on display. But Parolini’s western has a much lighter tone. There is genuine comedy, featuring some great one-liners and memorable sight gags. Acrobats fly through the air, including one of Sabata’s partners (but more on that later). Everything is exaggerated and overdone…but it works. It’s criminal how well it works.

 

It starts at the top with Lee Van Cleef as Sabata. It’s hard not to compare the character with Col. Mortimer from For a Few Dollars More (probably Van Cleef’s most memorable, iconic role), from the black suit and black hat to the expansive weapons arsenal. What’s added here is the more humorous tone. His one-liners are great, and his use of his guns ends up being some punch lines too. He seemingly can’t miss! Most importantly, Van Cleef seems to be having a ball. His evil smile is always on display, and you always get the sense he knows more than everyone else. As for his mysterious backstory, that definitely adds a layer to the story. His most memorable part? No, probably not, but it’s so much fun.

 

The general odd qualities to characters of the genre is a big positive here too. William Berger plays Banjo, a similarly mysterious gunfighter who’s always carrying…a banjo (with a surprise). He works for whoever will pay him, so one scene that’s Sabata and the next the bad guys. He wears bells on his pants and his coat and has some effeminate touches, but it’s a scream. The dialogue between Van Cleef and Berger provide repeated gems. Ignazio Spalla has a ball as Carrincha, Sabata’s right-hand man, a drunken Civil War vet who’s an expert knife thrower. His maniacal laugh is awesome. Aldo Canti plays Alley Cat (Indio in certain cast listings), a mute Indian who bounces around town like an acrobat with some nicely hidden trampolines. Definite oddballs but fun throughout.

 

Franco Ressel plays Stengel, the powerful rancher pulling all the strings. With an epic combover, heavy eyeliner and almost alien eyes, Ressel isn’t the most imposing villain…but definitely one of the more eccentric. Antonio Gradoli and Gianni Rizzo play his partners in crime, ever worried Sabata will ruin their plan. Also look for the beautiful Linda Veras as Jane, a saloon girl who loves Banjo, an eye candy part if there ever was. Also keep an eye out for plenty of familiar faces if you’re a spaghetti western fan.

 

What caught my attention on this latest watch was that really, there’s not much in the way of a story. Sabata blackmails the baddies, the baddies try and kill Sabata with epic failures….and then there’s a lot of shooting. You don’t notice though. It never slows down — at 102 minutes — enough for you to not enjoy the ride. Lots of action throughout, highlighted by Sabata, Carrincha and Alley Cat attaching Stengel’s fortified ranch. As well, the finale has a good twist and one of the better final shots.

 

Last but not least, composer Marcelo Giombini turns in one of the great spaghetti western scores over. Big and loud, featuring some almost gothic orchestra uses, and a GREAT theme song, it’s so good. Listen to a sample of the soundtrack HERE and the main theme song HERE. Apologies in advance if they’re stuck in your head for a couple days. Not always mentioned as one of the best spaghetti westerns, but it’s a gem and one of my personal favorites. Also, check out two Sabata sequels, with Yul Brynner taking over the part in Adios, Sabata and Van Cleef returning in ‘Return of Sabata.’ Neither are as good — Adios is better — but still worth a watch.

 

Sabata (1968): *** 1/2 /****

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone

go_kill_everybody_and_come_back_aloneThough he starred in over 50 films, headlined a couple lesser-known TV series and was even a pro baseball player, Chuck Connors will always be remembered as TV’s The Rifleman, an iconic role and one of the great TV western heroes. By the late 1960’s though, Connors went the route that many American stars did and headed to Europe for the spaghetti western craze. He starred in an entertaining Dirty Dozen-esque knockoff with one of the coolest movie titles ever, 1968’s Kill Them All and Come Back Alone.

During the Civil War as fighting rages in Texas, a gunfighter/outlaw, Clyde McKay (Connors), is enlisted by Confederate forces for a dangerous mission. The Union army is sitting on a huge gold shipment at a well-guarded outpost in the mountains. The gold is actually hidden among bundles of dynamite, making a potential robbery even more dangerous. McKay recruits five other men — killers, cutthroats and thieves — to aid in the mission…destroy the gold at all costs. With a Confederate intelligence officer (Frank Wolf) along for the ride, McKay and his crew ride out into the desert. The thought persists though…why destroy the gold when you could just as easily steal it?

The name Enzo G. Castellari might not be synonymous with other great spaghetti western directors, notably the two Sergios, Leone and Corbucci. Castellari was still a young director in 1968 when he helmed this action-heavy western. Over the next 10-plus years, he would direct some high quality action flicks that were almost always crowd pleasers. There’s nothing much to this 1968 effort, just 96 minutes of crazy action, fun/cool characters and some twists, turns and betrayals along the way. Nothing classic but highly enjoyable and definitely a fun watch.

The formula here is a familiar one. Just a year earlier, The Dirty Dozen was released, the story of 12 convict commandos working together on a suicide mission. Countless knock-offs and reboots followed, both war movies and in westerns. The spaghetti western genre alone went back to the well several times, including A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die and The Five Man Army. There isn’t much in the way of star power here or even much character exposition (as in any), and no time wasted with anything but the streamlined action-heavy theatrics. Introduce the team, introduce the mission, let the fireworks begin. Easy-peasy, right?!?

Starring in his first spaghetti western, a very thin, vvvvery tan Chuck Connors is McKay, the intrepid leader of our suicide squad. Backstory? Nah! Connors is cool and looks to be having a ball. It is cool seeing him playing a pretty nasty character, especially relative to squeaky-clean Lucas McCain. Now we need some specialists to help! There’s Wolf as the suspicious Captain Lynch, then Hoagy (Franco Citti), a quick-handed killer with pistol or a unique rope garrote, Deker (Leo Anchoriz), a specialist with dynamite and an 1860’s dynamite launcher, Blade (Giovanni Cianfriglia), a half-Indian, half-Mexican knife expert, the Kid (Alberto Dell’Acqua), a steely-eyed killer, and Bogard (Hercules Cortes), the brutish strongman. A good team, star power be damned.

I was surprised when the main heist takes place just 45 minutes into the story. The attack on the mountain fortress is a doozy of gunfire, explosions and acrobatic death stunts. Our squad hits everything while an entire garrison of Union soldiers can’t even nick them. They also literally drop their weapons and charge at them for a good, old-fashioned fistfight instead. Noble, right? It’s big, overdone and dumb fun though. The last 45 minutes revolve more around some twists and betrayals that do slow the story down a touch. Castellari knows how to string together some action though. Criticize any number of things here, but the action is fun from beginning to end.

Turn your brain off and enjoy this one. Some great looking locations in Spain, a fun musical score, and action popping at the seams throughout. I watched it on Youtube HERE if you’re interested. Definitely worth a watch, especially for spaghetti western fans.

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (1968): ** 1/2 /****